Theater Performances Are Enhanced When the Space Is Just Right

By Carter, Alice T. | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 8, 2008 | Go to article overview

Theater Performances Are Enhanced When the Space Is Just Right


Carter, Alice T., Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


It's an experience most frequent theatergoers know well.

You go to see a play that you've heard really good things about and come away disappointed.

It could be a show that won a best play Tony on Broadway, or one that a friend raved about after reading it or seeing it produced somewhere else. But when you see it, it's just missing that zing that makes it special.

Or maybe you've had the reverse experience. The play closed after getting lukewarm reviews or small audiences in New York. But when you see it performed locally, it comes alive and excites you.

The reason for your reaction may well lie in the work of the playwright or director or its cast or design crew or even in your own mood that day.

But there's another element that's often overlooked. The space in which you see a show performed can affect the success or failure of a production.

Call it the Three Bears Syndrome.

Just as shoes can be well made and attractive but pinch when they're too small, and hats can be beautiful and well-crafted but uncomfortable if they're too big, performance spaces can be too big or too small for a specific play.

The trick is in finding one that's just right.

It's most obvious when national touring productions that played with success in a small Broadway theater play here in a much larger venue such as the Byham or Benedum.

Those big-audience former movie palaces are just the right size for splashy musicals such as "The Lion King," "Wicked" or "Hairspray" with lots of bright costumes, big production numbers and a heavy helping of glitz and glimmer.

Smaller plays such as "Doubt" or "12 Angry Men" don't fare as well in big houses.

Their impact is often built on facial expressions. Tones of voice and small movements just don't carry to the final rows of the balcony.

Alternately, it would be just plain silly -- as well as economically disastrous -- to try to squeeze the spectacle of a show such as "Disney's Beauty and the Beast" or "Peter Pan" into such intimate venues as City Theatre's Lester Hamburg Studio or the University of Pittsburgh's Henry Heymann Theatre

It also takes a special understanding for a director to stage comedies and mysteries on a thrust stage where the audience sits on three sides.

It's difficult to hide the gun or insure that everyone gets the sight gag at the same moment when the audience is watching the show from different angles and viewing points.

But when plays and playing spaces are properly paired the result is both satisfying and electrifying. …

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